It’s ok to refer digital reference patrons to print materials…really

In our cooperative chat reference service, I have noticed that some librarians rarely point students to print resources when those resources may in fact be the best (and sometimes only) source of information for the topic in question. In one example, a student logged in repeatedly asking for help on the same question, and no one thought to recommend what is pretty much a standard reference source that would have quickly answered the question.

There are a lot of reasons why a librarian in chat or IM might rush to recommend an online source:

  • The librarian assumes that the patron isn’t on campus (or even in the library) and thus has no interest in print resources. This assumption is not often accurate. In our chat service, we find that at 40% of all chat sessions originate from computers here on campus.
  • Fearing impatience (often, rightly so) from the patron, the librarian takes a satisficing approach to the patron’s information need and rushes to show the student something that is maybe, just maybe, good enough to placate the patron for the moment. It may be that some librarians then intend to recommend to print sources, as they feel they have earned the trust of the patron; some do go on and suggest specific sources or suggest a search strategy in the catalog, but many never do.
  • The librarian mistakenly assumes that since the patron is online, ergo the patron only will accept online sources.

Although I am beginning to scale back on my acquisitions here at the library in Baruch for print reference sources, I still feel that librarians in digital reference must advocate on behalf of the richness of their print collections whenever appropriate. If we don’t speak up for print collections and remind users of them, who will?

2 Replies to “It’s ok to refer digital reference patrons to print materials…really”

  1. Hi! I enjoyed your comments on digital reference. I’m a chat librarian from VA and I cover chat for a consortium. I just had a chat recently on medieval costume and suggested some online resources, and then recommended that the patron take a look at the books in their library. The patron immediately ended the session and then got on again to chat with another librarian!

  2. Readerbuck, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink. I’ve seen that behavior, too. If there’s a silver lining to it, it’s that at least the patron hasn’t given up on asking a librarian for help. Although I’ve seen patrons log off and back on again in hopes of getting a more digitally-inclined librarian, what I see more often is patrons saying, “Yeah, but I really need something online right now,” which leads me to try my best to satisfy that request. What I don’t think is a good strategy for librarians, though, is assuming that users will always ignore our recommendations for print sources or that they will just go on to demand something online that can be accessed immediately.

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